Arthur Golden, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Behrouz Boochani, Book lists, Chloe Hooper, John McGahern, Sayo Masuda, Thea Astley

Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

Have you ever read a fiction book based on a true story and then wanted to read a non-fiction book on the same topic so that you can learn more? Or perhaps it has been the other way around: you’ve read a non-fiction book and thought you’d like to read something fictional inspired by those same events, people or places?

I love non-fiction and fiction pairings, the kinds of books that inform each other and give you a more rounded view of a particular subject, character, place or event.

Taking inspiration from Karen’s post on Booker Talk, here are four book pairings I have put together. As ever, links take you to my reviews.

On the love of mothers and of mining your own life for fiction

The Barracks by John McGahern

‘Memoir’ & ‘The Barracks’ both by John McGahern 

In Memoir, published in 2005, the late John McGahern wrote about his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads very much like a love letter to his beloved mother, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old, and an angry diatribe against his policeman father who showed his ill wife little empathy.

In his debut novel, The Barracks, McGahern writes from the perspective of a woman who returns to the rural Ireland of her childhood after the Second World War. Here she marries the local police sergeant, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his three children. When she develops breast cancer she hides it from everyone. It’s a dark, Catholic novel, but when you understand the events it was inspired by it seems to resonate with extra meaning and is a deeply powerful read.

On Australia’s immigration detention system

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani & ‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning non-fiction book, No Friend but the Mountains, details his time detained on Manus Island, Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention facility. It’s an eye-opening account of cruelty and abuse, where the authorities fail to treat asylum seekers with any kind of dignity or respect.

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel, Spinifex & Sunflowers, is a fictionalised account of his own time as a prison guard in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres — in this case the one in Curtin, Western Australia, which is no longer operating. His novel highlights how the guards are given little training to deal with “prisoners” and that many of those employed in such roles are doing it simply for the money.

On black deaths in custody/Palm Island

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper & ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Chloe Hooper’s shocking true crime book, The Tall Man, explores the death of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia with a dark and torrid history.  (It was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission.) This book demonstrates that in Australia there is one law for white people and another for black.

Thea Astley’s novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is set in the same location, albeit under a different name, but takes a real-life incident from the 1930s as her inspiration. That incident involved a grief-stricken white superintendent who went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return.

On life as a geisha

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda & ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

Sayo Masuda’s much-acclaimed autobiography documents what happens to her when, aged 12, she was sold to a geisha house in 1930s Japan. Despite the material comforts she earns, her life is far from happy and carefree.

Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a fictionalised account of a young girl whose parents sell her to a man with connections to a top geisha house in Tokyo. The book details her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I wrote this post as part of Nonfiction November, which is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, and Leann of Shelf Aware

What do you think of these book pairings? Can you recommend any others?

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 304  pages; 2003.

This book, published in the USA under the title By the Lake, was the last novel by Irish writer John McGahern, who died, aged 71, in 2006.

It is a beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.

In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. But this is more than a book about what it is like to live in the Irish countryside. It also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

That They May Face The Rising Sun is brought alive by a cast of intriguing, some might say eccentric, characters, although it mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders — Kate and Joe, who fled the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way.

There is little action to drive the narrative forward. Instead the reader comes to know — and appreciate — the rituals of rural living that inch this story along. Aided by McGahern’s calm, meditative prose, it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by the simplicity — and realism — of the story. I loved every word.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Leavetaking’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 176  pages; 2000.

First published in 1974, John McGahern revised The Leavetaking, his third novel, a decade later because he thought it “lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess”. The result is a tautly written novel composed of two halves, each radically different to the other.

Essentially it is a love story, about a teacher, Patrick, who is facing dismissal by the school authorities for marrying an American divorcee while on a year’s sabbatical in England. A battle of wills ensues: he won’t resign because he does not feel he has done anything wrong; the church won’t recognise his marriage and make it ‘holy’. His wife, meanwhile, is holed up in rooms in Howth, a seaside suburb of Dublin, happily going about her business until they are found out.

Part One of The Leavetaking is set during the last day of Patrick’s life as a teacher. Knowing that he will be sacked at the end of the day, he recalls how he first fell into teaching, the ‘second priesthood’, when he realised he loved women too much to become a priest. As he reminisces about his past he also recalls his childhood, his parent’s unusual relationship and then his mother’s untimely death. (Having recently read McGahern’s Memoir it is safe to say that the first part of this novel is largely autobiographical.)

Part Two, which is a far more enjoyable and easier read, revolves around Patrick’s adventures in London while on a 12-month leave of absence from the school. Here he meets Isobel, a tall American divorcee, who is the same age as him but comes from a vastly different background. She is tied to the purse strings of her smooth-talking but morally corrupt father, but eventually comes to realise it is time she stood on her own two feet. When the couple marry and return to Ireland, that’s when their troubles begin…

While this book is infused with a deep melancholia it is nowhere near as dark as his previous two offerings, The Barracks and The Dark. Given that McGahern himself faced dismissal as a teacher under similar circumstances I am surprised at the restraint shown here; there’s no malice, no anger, just a quiet understated calm.

His graceful but carefully considered prose is a delight, and his ability to capture period and place is so pitch-perfect you swear you could be standing in that flat-roofed concrete schoolroom or walking on the hill path overlooking the sea at Howth even though you are not.

Ultimately The Leavetaking is a quick read, but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. There is a lot to consider here about vocation, familial relationships, marriage, the Church and 1970s Ireland. I imagine that this slim book could be hungrily devoured over and over, and new meanings, new insights could be gained with each reading. In short, a lovely book about love.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Amongst Women’ by John McGahern

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 184  pages; 1991.

Amongst Women by John McGahern opens with Michael Moran, a former soldier in the Irish War of Independence, holed up at home in his dying days, surrounded by his three adult daughters who want him to “shape up” and “get better”.

“Who cares? Who cares anyhow?” he says, when they fuss over him, willing him “not to slip away”. This one statement — the fourth sentence in the book — reveals so much about Moran’s character that it seems pointless to say much more about him, other than he is probably the most annoyingly cantankerous and gruff literary character I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” for a long time.

Angry, stubborn and strong-willed, he rules his family with an alarming and complicated mix of brutality and tenderness.

A strong believer in the “family that prays together stays together”, he fails to understand why all his children — two sons and three daughters — flee the family home at the first opportunity to live in Dublin or London. Even when they return to visit him on and off over the years, his manner and inability to welcome them with open arms only serve to drive them further away.

Family life

Essentially this is a wonderfully realised portrait of an Irish Catholic family headed by a widowed father who marries a much younger woman (their non-traditional romance is beautifully written) and then sets about manipulating his children using violence, emotional blackmail and an obstinate refusal to do anything that is not on his own terms.

McGahern’s writing, restrained and free from melodrama, depicts Moran as all-too-human, someone who is so emotionally starved that you can feel nothing but pity for him.  It treads a  careful line between cold fury and utter despair.

Despite the fact that not much happens plot-wise — this is a character-driven story after all — the tension that brims throughout makes you keep turning the pages. Amongst Women is a quick read, but it is also a profoundly moving one that lingers in the mind long after you reach the somewhat depressing conclusion.

Amongst Women won the 1990 Irish Times-Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize.

‘Amongst Women’, by John McGahern, first published in 1990, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes the novel as an “expression of a postcolonial condition, generational change, and shifting gender relations in rural Catholic Ireland”.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Dark’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 192 pages; 2000.

First published in 1965, this aptly titled book is about one boy’s painful adolescence and his confused, ambiguous relationship with his violent widower father.

Set in rural Ireland during the 1950s and 60s, the unnamed protagonist longs to escape his father’s abusive shadow. But the only real options open to him are the priesthood or the farm.

When he concentrates on his schoolwork and wins a scholarship to university, it looks like he might have found the escape route he was looking for. But how will he explain his decision to his cantankerous and manipulative father? And if he leaves, how will his younger siblings cope without anyone to defend them?

The Dark is John McGahern’s second novel. It is not quite as accomplished or as complicated as his first (although he does play around with point of view, which adds a level of inventiveness), but it is characterised by the same things that made his debut so striking: the prose is lovingly crafted and poetry-like; the subject matter is stark; the characterisation is painfully realistic; and the atmosphere is claustrophobic and oppressive but brims with possibility.

From the very first page the reader is immersed in a world of domestic violence. By the third chapter the protagonist is sharing a bed with his father where he loathes the strokes and kisses he must endure (whether these are sexual or not is never made explicit). And later there are many grimy descriptions of masturbation. It is not a pleasant read, but it is a riveting one nonetheless.

The Dark is very reminiscent of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in its depiction of a young teenager’s sexual awakening in a country constrained and constricted by the Catholic Church.

But there’s more to this book than “the sins of the body”. McGahern explores the complex love/hate relationship between his two main characters — the eager-to-please-but-resentful son and the moody-and-abusive father — with delicacy and aplomb.

Unbearably painful in places, it is a fascinating portrait of what it is like to be young and forced to make difficult choices that will impact on the rest of your life and your familial relationships.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Ireland, John McGahern, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Memoir’ by John McGahern


Nonfiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2005.

I read this beautiful, lyrical and tear-inducing autobiography in just two sittings. With no chapters or natural breaks, I just could not tear my eyes away from John McGahern’s seamless narrative.

Concentrating mainly on his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, it is very much a love letter to his adored mother, an accomplished school teacher, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old.

It is also a heartfelt exploration of the ambiguous and complicated relationship with his father, a police sergeant, who ruled the family — McGahern, the eldest child, had six younger siblings — with a vicious tongue, temperamental mood swings and powerful fists.

At times the grief resonates off the page — the account of his mother’s illness, in which the family was moved out, furniture and all, to the police barracks in a different village while she lay upstairs in her sickbed seemed unbelievably cruel. During the several weeks in which she lay in her sickbed dying, her husband — McGahern’s father — did not once visit her to offer comfort or companionship. This is something that stays with McGahern for the rest of his life: his inability to understand his father’s lack of care or consideration for others close to him.

Despite this, Memoir is not a soppy book. And by no means is it anywhere near as cloying as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (which, by the way, I loved when I read it several years ago). The difference here is that McGahern is not seeking sympathy, but recounting honestly and truthfully what it was like to grow up with a widower father, who could not relate to those he supposedly loved and found it easier to lash out than bite his tongue. In many ways the book is about McGahern coming to terms with the fact that he will never understand his father.

What I found most interesting is how McGahern mined the events of his life for his fiction. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the penny dropping as I read specific incidences: just the mere fact that his beloved mother had died of breast cancer explained much about the clear-eyed realistic portrayal of a woman grappling with illness in his debut novel The Barracks.

There are other bits — the unspecified sexual abuse as he shares his father’s bed, the desire to enter the priesthood and the rescue of his sister from a boss who molests her — that appear in his second novel, The Dark. Similarly, his father’s remarriage to a younger woman, the strength of his love for his sisters and the continual running away of his youngest brother, feature in his Booker shortlisted book Amongst Women.

I also found it interesting to read about McGahern’s life as a writer: how he first discovered literature (a local priest had a wonderful library he was allowed to riffle); when he first realised he wanted to be a writer and not a priest or a farmer, two options that had been open to him; and how he dealt with the ups and downs of his career (lauded by the literary elite, banned by the Irish censors).

All in all, fans of McGahern’s fiction will find much to admire in this wise and compelling book, but even if you have not read any of his novels or short stories this is a must read memoir that will have you rushing to read everything he has ever written.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 232 pages; 2000.

After years of freedom working as a nurse in war-torn London, Elizabeth Reegan returns to the remote Irish village of her childhood. Here she marries a widower and becomes step-mother to three young children.

The widower is the sergeant of a three-man barracks (station) who longs to escape the police force. Bitter about his job, he runs a nice side business growing and cutting turf and does not seem particularly worried about being caught by the ever-prowling superintendent Quirke, who keeps a watchful eye on him.

In the claustrophobic surrounds of the barracks in which the police live and work, Elizabeth busies herself with the small but vital (and often unnoticed) tasks that are necessary for the smooth running of the household: cooking, cleaning, gardening, stoking the fire and minding the children.

But when she discovers a cyst in her breast, she uses the importance of these tasks as an excuse not to see a doctor. When, at last, she is diagnosed with cancer she finds herself dwelling on the past, finding comfort in the present while trying to contain the “scream in her mouth”.

First published in 1963 (and banned from JohnMcGahern’s local library), The Barracks is a remarkably confident first novel by a man who went on to become a giant of modern Irish literature.

McGahern’s ability to write so effectively, authentically and eloquently about a middle-aged woman dying of breast cancer is quite stunning. Her interior monologues are heartfelt, swinging between joy and despair. And her metaphysical crisis seems all the more profound because she is unable to share it with anyone, not even the village priest whom she has never liked. As a result she finds herself thinking more and more about a past lover, a young doctor in London, who constantly asked her: “What is all this living and dying about anyway?”

While The Barracks explores some very serious themes — life, death and our search for meaning — McGahern is also a master at the minutiae of daily life, the tedium of housework, the ritual of nightly prayer, and how the changing seasons dictate the timeless rhythms of rural living.

He is also very good at capturing the humour and banter between policeman, using rich and fiercely Irish dialogue that had me laughing out loud more than once or twice.

Overall this is a dark and depressing Catholic novel, but it’s poignancy and intelligence make it one of the most haunting reads you are ever likely to experience.